January 22, 2024 Special Dispatch No. 11085

Columns In Indian And Bangladeshi Media Examine Russia's Accusation Of U.S. Plot To Trigger 'Arab Spring' To Cause Regime Change In Bangladesh After January 7 Election

January 22, 2024
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 11085

On January 11, 2024, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh was sworn in as prime minister for a fifth five-year term. Sheikh Hasina won a landslide victory in the January 7 parliamentary elections which the opposition boycotted. Praised initially for her liberal politics, Sheikh Hasina tilts increasingly towards China, and is criticized by both her opposition and civil rights activists for being authoritarian.

On December 15, 2023, Russia even accused the United States of plotting an "Arab Spring" in Bangladesh against the Hasina government following the January 7 election. During her 15-year rule, most of her opposition leaders, activists, and critics have been arrested and imprisoned, accused of  corruption and other charges. Sheikh Hasina served a previous tenure as prime minister during 1996-2001 and has been in office since 2009.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has leaned toward China

The January 7, 2024 election was a one-woman show, wrote journalist Mohammad Al-Masum Molla of The Daily Star newspaper. For Bangladesh, it was the opposition, not the government, that was at stake, he wrote on the morning of the January 7 vote, observing: "This election is a quest to find an opposition, and not a decider of the government."[1]

Today, opposition groups feel that free and fair elections could never take place under Hasina. Indeed, Hasina sentenced Muhammad Yunus, Bangladesh's winner of the Nobel peace prize, to six months in prison for violating labor laws.[2] The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the recent elections, and its ailing leader and former prime minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, was imprisoned, but later placed under house arrest due to illness. He faces accusations of corruption.

Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova issued a statement pointing out that anti-government protests of December 12-13 in Bangladesh were orchestrated by the United States. "We see a direct connection between these events and the inflammatory activity of Western diplomatic missions in Dhaka, in particular, U.S. Ambassador Peter Haas," she said.[3] Zakharova added: "There are serious reasons to fear that in the coming weeks an even wider arsenal of pressure, including sanctions, may be used against the government of Bangladesh, which is undesirable to the West."[4] She went on: "If the results of the people's will are not satisfactory to the United States, attempts to further destabilize the situation in Bangladesh along the lines of the 'Arab Spring' are likely."[5]

Two recent articles – by journalist Deep Haldar for an Indian website, and by Dr. Rashid Askari, a former vice chancellor of the Islamic University of Bangladesh, in Bangladeshi media – examined whether an "Arab Spring" could unfold in Bangladesh. The Arab Spring, launched by citizens protesting authoritarian governments, is known for yielding to forces of lawlessness in the Middle East. The journalists also raised concerns that the United States, in its bid to oppose Hasina government's lurch toward China, was allying with right-wing Islamist parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. 

Following are excerpts from Deep Halder's article:[6]

"If Reports In The Bangladeshi Media Are To Be Believed, Matthew Beh, The First Political Secretary At The U.S. Embassy, Met With Jamaat Leader Syed Abdullah Muhammad Taher"

Deep Halder wrote: "Imagine for a second that an extremist far-right party from the World War II era resurrects itself in today's Germany. As the current government fights to minimize the damage to society, and the courts try to keep the party out of elections, the U.S. steps in. The U.S. Embassy lends an ear to the extremist party and pressures the German government to engage in talks with them so that matters can be resolved, and free and fair elections can be held in the country.

"Unimaginable? Well, swap Germany with Bangladesh and the World War II-era party with Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, and that is precisely what the U.S. seems to be doing in India's neighborhood today. If reports in the Bangladeshi media are to be believed, Matthew Beh, the first political secretary at the U.S. Embassy, met with Jamaat leader Syed Abdullah Muhammad Taher on October 16. The alleged meeting not only raised the hackles of the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government but also concerned many civil society and rights groups in Bangladesh.

"The Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, formerly known as Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, once opposed the very formation of Bangladesh. Several of its leaders were found guilty of murder, rape, and genocide during the 1971 Liberation War. In its current form, the Jamaat openly advocates for shari'a in Bangladesh, and has been accused of targeting the country's minorities..."

"[T]he U.S. seems to be on a track of its own. Its diplomats have been holding talks with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and the State Department has announced that it will put visa restrictions on those who try to undermine 'free and fair' elections in Bangladesh. An exasperated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has come out and said [in April 2023] that the U.S. wants a regime change in Bangladesh. When the premier of a country makes such a statement in public just before elections, it does raise questions about the game plan of the U.S. in Bangladesh..."

"The U.S. Is Not Happy With Hasina Engaging With China"; "The U.S. Has To Wait Another Day To See An Arab Spring In This Part Of The World"

The author continues: "In Hasina's case, there are serious concerns about corruption, suppression of dissent, and excesses by paramilitary forces. There's fear of the country gradually becoming a one-party state. But the current street protests in Bangladesh are mostly by the rank and file of the BNP and Jamaat. Things have not come to such a pass yet where common citizens, irrespective of political affiliations, have hit the streets in righteous rage.

"For all the criticism against the Hasina government, two positives stand out: the fast-tracking of infrastructure development and a stronger record of keeping religious fundamentalists at bay than the country's previous governments. Bangladeshi academic Sharin Shajahan Naomi... asserts that as an independent woman, she has felts most secure during the Hasina regime:

"'Being a woman... I find it deeply disappointing that the U.S., which projects itself as a vanguard of liberal values, is siding with those who attack my freedom,' she says. 'Their interference in Bangladesh elections is resulting in huge psychological support to fundamentalist forces. Does America want mandatory burqa and hijab for Bangladeshi women?'"

A major protest by opposition parties in Dhaka on December 17, 2023.

"Naomi points out that the U.S. is not happy with Hasina engaging with China, a view that Dhaka-based political journalist Sahidul Hasan Khokon echoes: 'Nothing else explains America's sustained pressure on the Hasina government during election time. It is as if they are compelled to see Hasina fall, just like the opposition parties. Hasina is her own person, she will never become a puppet,' says Khokon."

Halder concludes his article: "But the U.S. has to wait for another day to see an Arab Spring in this part of the world. Despite protests on the streets, Bangladesh is gearing up for the polls on 7 January, when the ballot box will do the talking."

Following are excerpts from Rashid Askari's article:[7]

"The Disruption Caused By The Arab Spring Had A Profound Impact On The Economies Of Affected Nations"; "The Power Vacuums And Weakened Governance Structures Created Fertile Ground For The Rise Of Extremist Groups"

"In recent times, geopolitical tensions have taken center stage as accusations fly and concerns escalate. The latest claim by Russia, asserting that the United States aims to impose an 'Arab Spring'-like situation to destabilize Bangladesh, has sparked debate, and raised questions about the potential applicability of such a scenario...

"The disruption caused by the Arab Spring had a profound impact on the economies of the affected nations. Investor confidence plummeted, leading to a decline in direct foreign investment and economic growth. Unemployment rates soared, particularly among the youth, exacerbating social unrest and discontent. The initial aspirations for improved economic conditions were overshadowed by the harsh realities of economic downturns.

"Prolonged conflicts in the aftermath of the Arab Spring triggered humanitarian crises, with millions of people facing displacement and seeking refuge both within and outside their nations. The Syrian civil war, which emerged from the broader Arab Spring protests, became a focal point of displacement, contributing to the refugee crisis in the region. The strain on resources and the breakdown of social structures further impeded real development.

"The power vacuums and weakened governance structures created fertile ground for the rise of extremist groups. The emergence of ISIS, for example, capitalized on the chaos in Iraq and Syria, leading to widespread violence and displacements. The security vacuum left nations vulnerable to internal conflicts and external threats, hindering the potential for sustained development.

"The Arab Spring, in some cases, exacerbated existing sectarian and ethnic tensions, leading to the fragmentation of societal cohesion. Nations like Libya and Yemen faced deep divisions, hindering collective efforts toward development. Rebuilding fractured social fabrics became a formidable challenge as communities grappled with the scars of conflict."

"The Present [Hasina] Government's Handling Of Economic And Political Situations Has Been Marked By A Careful And Strategic Approach, Setting Bangladesh Apart From The Conditions That Preceded The Arab Spring"

Rashid Ashkari continues: "The turmoil following the Arab Spring disrupted essential public services, with education and healthcare systems facing severe challenges. Access to quality education and healthcare became erratic, impacting the well-being and future prospects of citizens. The long-term consequences on human capital development and societal progress are serious.

"The disillusionment that followed the Arab Spring eroded trust in political processes. Many citizens who had hoped for positive change found themselves disenfranchised and disheartened. This widespread distrust in political institutions became a significant obstacle to civic engagement and participatory governance, hindering the prospects of meaningful development.

"Against this backdrop, Russia's claim that Bangladesh may face a similar fate after the January 7, 2024, elections raises eyebrows, given the unique socio-political context of Bangladesh. The country, since its liberation in 1971, has navigated a complex political landscape and has demonstrated resilience in the face of challenges. The present government's handling of economic and political situations has been marked by a careful and strategic approach, setting Bangladesh apart from the conditions that preceded the Arab Spring.

Sheikh Hasina rejected an opposition demand to hold the election under a caretaker government.

"One key aspect that differentiates Bangladesh is its economic trajectory. The nation has made significant strides in economic development over the past decade, achieving notable success in areas such as poverty reduction, industrial growth, and human development. The government's commitment to fostering economic stability and social welfare has contributed to a sense of progress and stability among the populace. Moreover, Bangladesh's political landscape exhibits a resilience and adaptability that sets it apart from the Arab nations that experienced upheaval during the Arab Spring.

"However, it is essential to recognize that political dynamics can be fluid, and perceptions of stability can be fragile. The allegations made by Russia highlight the need for a proactive and transparent approach by the government of Bangladesh to address concerns and maintain confidence in its democratic processes. By prioritizing good governance, inclusivity, corruption prevention, and addressing legitimate grievances, the government can further fortify the democratic foundation and refute claims of vulnerability to external disruptions."

"The Economic And Political Stability Positions Bangladesh In A Manner That Mitigates The Likelihood Of Succumbing To The Challenges Of The Arab World During The Arab Spring"

Ashkari continues: "The role of international actors in shaping the narrative surrounding Bangladesh should also be taken into consideration. The global community must approach the situation with nuance, and a commitment to understanding the unique dynamics at play. Bangladesh's diplomatic engagements, bolstered by its economic achievements, political stability, and cultural richness, should serve as a testament to its commitment to constructive international relations.

"The economic and political stability positions Bangladesh in a manner that mitigates the likelihood of succumbing to the challenges of the Arab world during the Arab Spring. However, this does not absolve the government from the responsibility of addressing concerns transparently and fostering an environment of inclusivity to ensure the continued stability and progress of the nation. As Bangladesh stands at the crossroads of geopolitics, its resilience and commitment to democratic values will undoubtedly shape its future trajectory.

"As we consider potential parallels with Bangladesh, it is crucial to learn from the lessons of the Arab Spring and emphasize the importance of stability, inclusive governance, and sustainable development. The disastrous aftermath of the Arab Spring serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the need for thoughtful and measured approaches to address political, economic, and social challenges.

"Bangladesh's commitment to stability and economic progress places it in a unique position: to seize an opportunity to navigate the complexities of global geopolitics, while fostering sustained development and prosperity for its citizens."


[1] (Bangladesh), January 7, 2024.

[2] (India), January 3, 2024.

[3] (Bangladesh), December 17, 2023.

[4] (Bangladesh), December 17, 2023.

[5] (Bangladesh), December 17, 2023.

[6] (India), December 2, 2023.

[7] (Bangladesh), January 2, 2024.

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